Spider-Man and the Web of Sony's Cinematic Universe
We have become so saturated with superhero iconography that we forget what it was like before blockbuster franchises like Spider-Man took off. It’s the reason why your boss owns a Mjölnir mug and why your mom recognizes the name Tony Stark. Imagine finding a superhero t-shirt in the girl’s section of Target before 2000; an 11-year-old me would have never believed you. We forget how strange it is to have a lineup of superhero blockbusters with 200 million dollar budgets out each summer. The rise of nerd culture all perfectly coincided with my own obsession with dingy 25 cent comics from the flea market and casting rumors on IMDB. So naturally, who better than me to remind you that, for the last twenty years, Sony has been trying to make Spider-Man the next huge cinematic universe.
More than anything, Sony Pictures wants to have the same franchise power as Warner Brothers has with DC, Disney/Marvel with the MCU, and Fox with the X-Men (and Fantastic Four, I guess). For the last two decades, Sony has tried to make a tentpole franchise last with their Spider-Man films, in order to spin-off to the hundreds of other characters they own through their film rights agreement. Sony’s licensing of Spider-Man includes over 800 characters. This sounds like a big number, I mean it is, but this is every character, every secretary and classmate, that appeared in the comics. It is no wonder they are so obsessed with an umbrella of characters all under one cinematic universe. They want to use what they’re paying for, and legally they have to.
Marvel Comics began selling off their character’s film rights in the late 1970s. After some TV movies, direct-to-video films, a brief stint with Roger Corman, and a script by James Cameron, Spider-Man found a forever home in 2000, when MGM traded the Spider-Man film rights to Columbia for the sole rights to make James Bond films. Columbia is a division of Sony Pictures, and when I tell this story, they will be referred to as Sony.
That year, Sam Raimi was hired to helm Sony’s first Spider-Man film. Two years later, Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, was released to audiences. The film did exceptionally well, proving that the success of X-Men in 2000 wasn’t just a fluke for the genre. Naturally, they jumped right into Spider-Man 2 in 2004, a film that many argue is the best superhero film ever made. It seemed like Raimi would be content to keep making Spider-Man films, and Sony was happy to have a strong franchise on their bankroll.
As they worked on Spider-Man 3, from 2004 to 2007, the sequel went into development with an initial release date of 2011. Rumors swirled. Raimi mentioned filming Spider-Man 4 and 5 at the same time, referring to how Peter Jackson did the same with The Lord of the Rings. James Vanderbilt was hired to write the fourth installment, while at the same time being approached to write Spider-Man 5 and 6. As Spider-Man 3 wrapped, every outlet guessed which villains would come next. Raimi had mentioned the Lizard, played by Dylan Baker who appeared in the first two films as Dr. Curt Connors. This sounded like the next obvious next step, but then Spider-Man 3 came out.
Things were spinning out of Raimi’s control. The studio had intervened in Spider-Man 3, creating a film that felt like three separate stories spliced together. Topher Grace’s Venom was given a bigger role than originally intended, thanks to producer Avi Arad’s meddling. (This is not the last time you will hear about Arad’s interest in Venom.) Despite its critical reception, Raimi and Sony pushed on with Spider-Man 4, with reports of John Malkovich playing Vulture, Anne Hathaway as Felicia Hardy (costumed as a new character called the Vulturess) and Bruce Campbell with a cameo that would become Mysterio. Sounds like they were trying to make a Sinister Six film, huh? In the end, nothing was confirmed and as the film became more and more ambitious, Raimi felt the pressure to hit a release date of 2011.
In January 2010, Sony announced that Raimi had withdrawn from Spider-Man 4. With that, Sony was back to square one.
Let’s talk a little about Venom. David S. Goyer wrote a script for Venom back in 1997 with Dolph Lundgren starring. Wild. This never happened because Sony grabbed the film rights before they could start production. Sony and Avi Arad obviously liked the idea, though. Even after Spider-Man 3’s reception in 2007, they pursued a Venom spin-off. While working on rewriting Spider-Man 5, Gary Ross was asked to rewrite and direct Venom in 2009. Ross later left to work on The Hunger Games. Finally in 2012, Josh Trank approached Sony to talk about Venom, but was dragged off to work on Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. Poor guy.
Sony very quickly rebounded with a new director, Marc Webb. Fresh off of 500 Days of Summer, Webb began work on a Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield starring and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, released in 2012. During this time, a Venom film was brought up again by producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad, as a shared universe with their “Amazing” Spider-Man. After the success of Amazing Spider-Man and a sequel announcement, Sony moved forward with plans for Venom, this time with Alex Kurtzman to direct. They also started looking for a Sinister Six script.
It’s April 2014. Drew Goddard is announced to direct a Sinister Six film. Both Venom and Sinister Six are slated to be released before The Amazing Spider-Man 4, a film that Garfield never signed on for and that Marc Webb already said he would not direct. See where this is going?
In May 2014, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperformed. At the time, Sony continued to hint at more Amazing Spider-Man films, and still planned Venom, Sinister Six, and a possible female-led spin-off. But, as the reality of the situation became clear, Sony delayed The Amazing Spider-Man 3 until 2018.
Everything screeched to a halt in late 2014, when a group called the “Guardians of Peace” hacked Sony’s data, releasing hundreds of emails. Many films were affected by the leak. Most emails contained embarrassing exchanges, showing how Sony meddled with their productions in the past. My personal favorite? Channing Tatum’s emails asking to pitch a Venom film. Between the hacking, Amazing Spider-Man 2’s poor box office, and a leaked email that said Sony executives were upset with Andrew Garfield for not attending an event in Rio, Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man series was done for, but they had another plan.
Leaks of Sony’s conversations with Marvel’s Kevin Feige from October 2014 started plenty of forum chatter. They had been negotiating an appearance of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, but the talks hadn’t gone anywhere. But things had changed. In February 2015, Marvel Studios and Sony announced their deal to share Spider-Man for the foreseeable future. Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man was cancelled, along with any other spin-offs, though Venom seems to always bounce back.
I clearly remember the excitement that began with the Sony email leaks. If Marvel Studios wasn’t going to fully regain the film rights, this was the next best thing. Sony would continue to hold onto Spider-Man, with distribution and more, but Spider-Man would also appear in MCU films and Disney would have creative control over the character while appearing in their films. This gave Sony the ability to pursue their spin-off films like Venom, while taking advantage of the MCU’s insane popularity to ensure the focal point of their cinematic universe (Spider-Man) was always part of the largest movies of the year.
Production began on Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2016, with Jon Watts directing. Homecoming was released directly after the character’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War, and was a hit in its own right. With their newest incarnation of Spider-Man a success, Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad were back and ready to finally produce Venom. The project aimed high, with a smaller budget, R-rating, and the goal of a new franchise for Sony. Ruben Fleischer was brought on to direct a film that was obviously inspired by the success of Deadpool and Logan at Fox. With Tom Hardy signed to star, the film became even more promising. Even as they eventually tamed down the rating to PG-13, people were still oddly excited for an off-the-wall and violent rendition of Spider-Man’s well-known adversary. And… it did well. Really well. I mean, not critically, but it’s definitely one of those films where some guy tweeted, “critics don’t understand audiences,” or whatever.
Now that we’re nearly caught up, here’s the question on everyone’s mind: Does Sony really plan to involve Holland’s squeaky clean Peter Parker in the almost R-rated world of Hardy’s Venom? Past comments by Feige made it seem like they would be separate, yet Sony has mentioned an “adjacent cinematic universe” to the MCU, where films like Venom would interact with their new Spider-Man. Nonetheless, Sony, high on the excitement of their successful new Spider-Man franchise and Venom spin-off, has announced a whole slate of spin-off films, hoping to finally use their film rights to the fullest.
First, they began work on Silver & Black, a film featuring Silver Sable and the Black Cat, with Gina Prince-Bythewood writing and directing. Unfortunately, Prince-Bythewood left the film this year after being unhappy with the script. It was canceled, and now Sony is talking about replacing it with two solo films for the characters.
Much like Batman’s Catwoman, Black Cat is both a villain and love interest to Spider-Man. In 2014, she was rumored to star in Sony’s female superhero spin-off while they tried to expand their Amazing Spider-Man franchise. At one point, a film known as Glass Ceiling was in the works, set as a team-up featuring many of Spider-Man’s female counterparts. After Marvel Studios and Sony’s deal, Glass Ceiling was no more.
Immediately following Venom, Sony announced Morbius, another Spider-Man villain vehicle, with Jared Leto starring and Daniel Espinosa set to direct. This idea is very much in line with Sony’s focus on villain-centric spin-offs, and while this worked well for Venom, I doubt Leto would bring the same excitement as Hardy did for the role.
Sony isn’t stopping there. How about Kraven the Hunter, with a screenplay in the works from Richard Wenk? Nightwatch, with Spike Lee in talks to direct? A female hero named Jackpot? Or how about Silk, an Asian-American girl named Cindy Moon?
With the influx of announcements, and their rush to sign on Tom Hardy for multiple pictures, it seems like Sony is on the come-up after nearly two decades of trying to make this property as successful as possible. But, is it just more of the same? They’ve never really had a handle on the marketing of their Spider-Man films and have always managed to push their best performing films and directors to their breaking points.
This could be summed up by a failure to learn from their past mistakes, but Sony may have hit gold recently with an animated project that no one expected. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is releasing with a nearly perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, rave reviews calling it the best animated feature of the year, and some even saying it’s the best depiction of Spider-Man to date. Sony Pictures Animation could be the answer to every Sony executive’s prayers, providing them with a cinematic medium no other studio is truly taking advantage of in the superhero genre. Not only that, but Spider-Verse features a unique style of animation unlike anything else seen in the medium.
With the upcoming of Spider-Man: Far From Home, a Venom follow-up, who knows how many spin-offs, and the addition of a Spider-Verse 2, the studio has many outlets to choose from. Yet, knowing their history, anything can happen. Either way, Sony and Sony Pictures Animation are on the cusp of a new Cinematic Universe, finally able to compete with the other major contenders in the superhero blockbuster matchups audiences have come to expect every year.